Lunedì 26 novembre un gruppo di ricercatori cinesi a Shenzhen ha annunciato la nascita di due gemelli da embrioni geneticamente modificati mediante la tecnica CRISPR. Le notizie sono ancora frammentarie e nessuna delle dichiarazioni finora fatte si basa su dati analizzati secondo il normale processo a cui sono sottoposte le pubblicazioni scientifiche. Il che significa che i fatti potrebbero essere ben diversi da quello che sappiamo ad oggi, con nuove notizie che potrebbe emergere nei prossimi giorni.
La possibilità di eseguire l’editing, ossia la modifica, del genoma nell’embrione è da tempo una possibilità concreta, ma a causa delle normative vigenti nei paesi europei, tali esperimenti non sono mai stati condotti in Europa. Questo mio commento ha lo scopo di fornire una breve introduzione alla tecnologia CRISPR e alcune riflessioni per aiutare i giornalisti e il pubblico a comprendere meglio il contesto di questi fatti.
Ci sono tre punti che voglio discutere. Il primo è che questo tipo di attività ha bisogno di regolamentazioni ben precise che rassicurino la società. Il secondo è che questi “esperimenti” sono inappropriati e non etici in un contesto europeo. Infine, questo “studio” manca del rigore scientifico e non rispetta gli standard della comunità scientifica internazionale.
Continue reading “Bambini CRISPR – una riflessione scientifica e alcune considerazione etiche”
On Monday, 26th November, the story that Chinese scientists in Shenzhen have performed CRISPR editing of human embryos for reproductive genomic editing came to light. The initial reporting of the story was patchy, without the normal scientific process of published papers accompanied by extensive data and peer review. This lack of facts makes it likely that more details about this story will emerge over the coming days.
The fact that researchers could perform genome editing in the embryo has long been a real possibility, but due to tight regulations in European countries, such experiments do not occur in Europe. This blog post provides a short background to CRISPR technology, and some thoughts to help reporters and the general public understand the context better.
There are three main points I want to convey. The first is that this type of science needs strong regulation which society can be confident in. The second is that I believe that this was an inappropriate study that is almost certainly unethical in a European setting. Finally the specifics of the study have been poorly thought through, and do not have the standard rigour of scientific research.
Continue reading “CRISPR babies – a consideration of the science and ethics”
Over the Christmas holiday, quite a few of us will consume ethanol-containing products. This simple, two-carbon molecule is a potent (and legal) mood-altering drug that is woven into the fabric of European and many other cultures since time immemorial. Ethanol has been part of the furniture of human civilization since enterprising farmers discovered it in rotten fruit. It is only fitting that it features prominently at Christmas, a winter feast of excess.
Continue reading “Ethanol: why?”
Charles Darwin performed experiments on plant movements with his seventh child, Francis Darwin, which they wrote up as joint authors in 1880 (Francis was a young man at the time). Every year, thousands of children and budding scientists repeat these experiments:
- Shine a light on a plant from just one source, and observe as plants orientate their growth to ‘face’ the light.
- Adorn growing shoots with a ‘cap’ that is impermeable to light and observe as they grow straight, even as light hits the open stem.
The tip of the plant senses the direction of the light, and this information is transmitted to the growing stem to direct growth behaviour. That transmission is performed by auxins, the first of which was isolated in the 1930s.
Continue reading “Auxins: messengers of light”
No one could mistake the pungent, spicy smell of caraway on rye bread, or perhaps in a yoghurt pudding, for the sharp, fresh smell of spearmint pinched from the garden or flavouring your tea. The two are entirely distinct. And yet the chemicals that make these two smells are identical in every possible way, except that they are mirror images of each other (‘enantiomers’).
Continue reading “Carvone: through the looking glass”
Chinese culture has long treated ailments using herbal extracts in intricate combinations. This oeuvre of herbal experimentation gave rise to purified forms more recognisable as medicines, of which Artemisinin is one success story.
Continue reading “Artemisinin: 青蒿素”
One of the first fluorescent molecules to be synthesised by humans was Fluorescein. The imposing German chemist Adolf von Baeyer created it in 1871, and was awarded the 1905 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on dyes and aromatic compounds.
Continue reading “Fluorescein: biology’s guide dog”
My seventh chemical of Christmas is not routinely made in biology, and is actually lethal to most large animals. Crafted by extremely inventive chemists in the 19th Century, benzene is a beautifully symmetric molecule with 6 carbons and 6 hydrogens.
Continue reading “Benzene: the aromatic circle”
Ah, the smell of coffee brewing, of tea steaming, hot chocolate beckoning on a cold winter’s day… the fizzy kick of Coca-Cola on a long journey. It’s wonderful, really. The taste, feel and cultural significance of each of these drinks may differ, but they all share one key ingredient: caffeine. Caffeine is the most commonly used mood-altering drug for humans: it wakes us up, prepares our minds for work, keeps us alert (we think) and provides a shared experience during informal interactions.
Continue reading “Caffeine: protector of plants”
One of the most important discoveries of the 20th Century was antibiotics: chemicals that kill bacteria but not their human hosts. It changed the shape of human society as people began to survive septic cuts, everyday horrific infectious diseases, syphilis and tuberculosis.
Continue reading “Vancomycin: last line of defence”